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Previewing the Colorado defense

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Cal should be able to find success on the ground against a struggling Buffalo defense.

If Cal can run on Colorado like the Rams did, I like their chances.
If Cal can run on Colorado like the Rams did, I like their chances.
Doug Pensinger

Colorado is in their 2nd season under defensive-minded head coach Mike MacIntyre and defensive coordinator Ken Baer. The duo have coached together since 2010, first at San Jose State, and now at Colorado . . . and it hasn't been easy. They took over a team and defense that was arguably the worst in the country in 2012, and produced modest but meaningful improvements in 2013.

Can the Buffs defense take another step forward this year? With five new starters in the lineup, early returns aren't encouraging. Colorado's defense struggled mightily in losses to Colorado St. and Arizona St., and the schedule will be tougher the rest of the year.

For Cal, this is obviously a prime opportunity to wash away the memories of that thing that we don't really want to spend any time thinking about. Let's just dive right in before pondering it any longer.

Starters

Left End: Fr. Derek McCartney ; DT: Jr. Josh Tupou ; DT: Sr. Judah Parker ; Right End: Fr. Christian Shaver

These are the four players Colorado lists as starters, but the Buffs have given meaningful action to eight different defensive linemen so far this year, presumably in a desperate attempt to find something that works. When you look at the stats it makes sense.

Colorado defensive linemen have recorded 5.5 sacks in 4 games, a paltry total considering the opposition. Three of those are from McCartney, who seems to be a pass rush specialist considering the number of snaps he has played. The Cal line will have to find him and perhaps double team him on passing downs.

More disturbing is the combined total of 3 other tackles for a loss. It should be concerning when a team is starting a true freshman and a redshirt freshman at both end positions, and it likely speaks to recruiting failures of the last two coaching regimes.

The bottom line here is that the stats show a D-line that simply gets pushed around on running plays and lacks disruptive talent in the pass rush. This isn't a 3-4, where the linemen are supposed to occupy blockers so that linebackers can make plays. A 4-3 needs tackles that can push upfield and ends that can get past blockers. It's clearly not happening. Three of the four starters are undersized for their position, and the rushing numbers you will see below speak volumes.

MIKE: So. Addison Gillam ; WILL: So. Kenneth Olugbode ; SAM: Sr. Woodson Greer

Colorado lists three linebackers, but they will almost certainly play in nickel most of the game against Cal's base offense. Gillham is the veteran of the unit, and led Colorado in tackling by a solid margin last year. He's picked up a few sacks this year and is almost certainly Colorado's most dangerous blitzer.

Olugbode played sparingly last year as a true freshman but has stepped into the starting lineup to replace the departed Derrick Webb. Greer is the linebacker who will most often be on the sidelines when Colorado goes with five defensive backs, which seems to be the same role he filled last year. Senior Brady Daigh may also be in the rotation a bit.

Left CB: Sr. Greg Henderson ; SS: So. Tedric Thompson ; FS: So. Chidobe Awuzie ; Right CB: Jr. Ken Crawley ; Nickel: So. John Walker

Likely the strength of Colorado's defense, at least in a relative sense. All four starters saw significant action last year, while John Walker received spot duty as a redshirt freshman. They have mostly performed well, but against questionable opposition. Safties Thompson and Awuzie have been piling up passes defended and tackles, which speaks well of their abilities and poorly of the players in front of them who shouldn't be letting opposing ballcarriers get through.

Thanks largely to the schedule, this group isn't as tested as you might expect.

2014 so far

5.88 yards/play allowed in a 31-17 loss to Colorado State
5.46 yards/play allowed in a 41-38 win over UMass
7.01 yards/play allowed in a 38-24 loss to Arizona State
3.67 yards/play allowed in a 21-12 win over Hawaii

Strength of schedule matters here. Last year, Hawaii and UMass were two of the most inept offenses on the country. Colorado State had a decent rushing attack but couldn't throw the ball. If you ignore the team names, it appears that Colorado has had two good performances and one great performance. While the Buffs can only beat the teams put in front of them, I would hope that their performance against ASU with three quarters of Taylor Kelly is more predictive than most everything else.

Also, we'll talk about it more, but that Colorado State game says something about Colorado's run defense.

Against the pass

2013: 7.4 yards/attempt allowed, 81st in the country
2014: 5.8 yards/attempt allowed, 21st in the country

Don't be frightened by that low 2014 number. UMass and Hawaii are dysfunctional and CSU realized very quickly that they didn't need to do anything other than hand the ball off in their rivalry win. Arizona State averaged a very healthy 8.1 yards/attempt at altitude in Boulder.

Colorado's secondary has to replace the production of departed seniors Parker Orms and Jered Bell. Considering the results against Arizona State, the jury is still out. On the other hand, it's not like Colorado had a great pass defense last year, so who knows? At this point, however, I expect Jared Goff and Cal's receivers to make plays against all but the best pass defenses.

Against the run

2013: 4.94 yards/attempt allowed, 102nd in the country
2014: 5.11 yards/attempt allowed, 101st in the country

Yikes. You all read that section on Colorado's defensive line, right? The Buffs are 101st in the country despite playing two cupcakes. Meanwhile, Cal's rushing attack is coming on strong after putting together an excellent 6.1 yards/attempt against Arizona (after you remove sacks from the equation).

The bottom line is that this is a battle that Cal should win, and decisively. And it's also a match-up that should allow Cal to salt away a win in the 2nd half, should it come to that.

Advanced stats

As always, stats taken from footballoutsiders.com.

2013 S&P: 95th in the nation
2014 S&P: 73rd in the nation

2013 FEI: 85th in the nation
2014 FEI: 65th in the nation, unadjusted for strength of schedule.

As always, 2014 advanced still need to be taken with a gigantic grain of salt this early in the year - particularly when one rating doesn't yet adjust for playing UMass and Hawaii. S&P essentially confirm that, so far, Colorado's pass defense has been solid, but not nearly solid enough to make up for a disastrous run defense.

Turnovers

2013: 22 forced turnovers (10 interceptions, 11 fumbles), 60th in the country
2014: 4 forced turnovers (2 interceptions, 2 fumbles), 87th in the country

Last year Colorado collected an average number of interceptions and fumbles, but they have been a touch less disruptive this year, perhaps because seven interceptions from the secondary graduated.

Summary

With the possible exception of Arizona (depending on what you think of Cal's offense) and Washington State, Colorado is probably the worst defense the Bears will face this year. Colorado is also very likely to be the worst run defense Cal will face this year.

If you're going to lose a game on the road in the most painful, crushing fashion imaginable, this is the scenario you want. The Bears are back at home, against a bad defense that likely won't be able to handle what the Cal offense should be capable of doing.

One might wonder about the psychological state of a team that went through football hell last year. Can they bounce back? If they don't, they will be labelled psychologically weak. If they do, talking heads will praise their toughness. Being that I am an obnoxious stathead and intangibles-atheist, I don't think last week's game should or will have any meaningful impact on this week.

The relevant question: Is Cal, playing at home, the better team than Colorado? Overall, I don't know the answer to that question for sure. But I feel confident saying that Cal's offense holds a significant, meaningful advantage over Colorado's defense. Enough of an advantage that the Bears should win this game comfortably. "Should" is a dangerous word in college sports, but we have to make predictions with the information in hand.